I met Grace in 1985. She was the fashion director of British Vogue, and I was starting my career as a stylist. Beatrix Miller, the great editor-in-chief of the magazine, took a chance on me and sent me to New York to do a front-of-book piece, “What’s Hot in New York.” Grace was there covering the collections. I was shy, and Grace was very shy, but we both loved fashion and great photography—we sort of hit it off.
I’ve known Grace through her last years at British Vogue, her brief stint as creative director at Calvin Klein, and her almost 30-year career as creative director at American Vogue. I’ve also lived through her passion for the work of Calvin Klein, Azzedine Alaïa, and Helmut Lang. Grace would wear their clothes almost exclusively. And as this was a time when editors could photograph only the clothes they loved, Grace gave a lot of love and pages to those designers. These days she likes to wear a mix of Céline, Prada, and Marni—mostly in shades of black.
Grace invited me over her Chelsea, New York apartment, which she shares with her long-time partner, the hairstylist Didier Malige, and where we sat down for this interview. Their apartment is very comfortable and “loved,” with cats everywhere: in paintings, on teapots, in photographs, and on cushions. And of course, there are two real cats—Blanket and Pumpkin—who are almost as famous as Grace.
Joe McKenna—Everybody knows a lot about you already. You’re so prolific and you’ve written a book, you’ve been in a film—what would you like to talk about?
Joe—We’ll get to cats! The things you and I have in common are clothes and fashion pictures. We’ve both done it for quite a bit of time, so we both know a little bit about it. But what’s inspiring to you at the moment?
Grace—That’s the hardest question of all. In a way, I’m starting a new life, venturing out into all the things I haven’t done before. Being freelance is very different from working for the same person every day. That is such a security, a loyalty. That’s not to say that now my loyalties change. I’m still very much a part of Vogue. If everything else changes around me—Vogue changes, fashion changes—I’m still part of Vogue. That’s never going to change. Just the fact that I don’t have to get up at 7:30 am is…
Grace—That’s very new, right! I worked in an office, in a structured life. I’m a bit in limbo now because I’m looking for my new life; I’m not 100 percent sure what that is. But I’m looking for: “What is inspiring?” I want to do something as inspiring, or hopefully more inspiring, at this point in my life with the knowledge that I’ve gained over all the years—which is quite a lot. I want to interweave all that I’ve learned and use it in Part II of my life. Actually, Part III of my life, because for 10 years I was a model. You don’t want to throw everything you’ve learned out the window and be a gardener. Well, I wouldn’t mind being a gardener [laughs].
Joe—How would you define your new role? You’ve said you don’t want to be a fashion stylist.
Grace—Yes, that is one thing that I am quite clear about.
Joe—And for you, that means what?
Grace—Not having the lifestyle—one I perceive—of people who are not attached to a magazine. I don’t mean that against you, Joe; up until a minute ago, you were attached to a magazine. I see your life, and you’re on a plane all the time, torn backwards and forwards. You’re torn because you have loyalties to three or four different people, and sometimes they conflict. You have to manipulate that in such a way that no one feels like they’re second best. That’s really complicated. I’ve heard you talk about it: “Should I do this job with so-and-so, or should I do that job with so-and-so?”
“I’m looking for my new life; I’m not 100% sure what that is. But I’m looking for: ‘What is inspiring?’ I want to do something as inspiring, or hopefully more inspiring, at this point in my life with the knowledge that I’ve gained over all the years—which is quite a lot. I want to interweave all that I’ve learned and use it in Part II of my life.”
Joe—You go with the one that put the option on first. That’s where it can get tricky.
Grace—Yes, and I understand both sides of that. We have that at Vogue also. It’s called “First Come, First Served” in terms of “I want that dress, or Tonne [Goodman] wants that dress, or Camilla [Nickerson] wants that dress.” They say, “Well, Camilla’s shoot is first, so she’s going to get it.” I get really pissed at that and I say, “But, hang on a minute, this dress is really important to my shoot.” It’s extremely annoying!
Joe—What are you going to miss about being at Vogue every day?
Grace—Since I haven’t left yet, I’ve been there every day and for longer hours as I’m not there all the time. So what am I going to miss down the line? There is a sort of camaraderie, even though we all fight amongst ourselves for dresses, photographers, Anna’s attention, or Raul’s attention, or whatever. At the same time there is a great support system between us editors at Vogue. Certainly we get frustrated with each other, but it’s not out of meanness, just out of always wanting what’s best for your shoot. It sounds cliché, but it is like being in a family. Anna is like the head of the family. You go and tell Anna that you love Tonne’s pictures if you want her to try and get another spread or something. We do actually fight for each other, and that’s something. I come from a not very close-knit family, and I’ve had this particular family now for 30 years and another one for 20 years at British Vogue. I’ll miss that.
Joe—You don’t want to be a freelance fashion stylist. Does that mean you’re going to miss doing sittings from time to time? Or is that something you’d like to continue?
Grace—I’m still contributing to Vogue. But I see freelance stylists work every day and their work overlaps sometimes: you’re doing a show, then a shoot and a show, so you leave the show before it’s even finished. I hear those stories and am shocked by it because I can’t imagine leaving something before it’s finished—that overlap and intensity. I don’t want to get into that. I just did a recent advertising shoot, and the other thing about freelance styling is, it’s really weird for the pictures not to come into you. Once you leave the studio, that’s it. You don’t see or hear anything.
Joe—You see it when it runs in the magazine.
Grace—Six months later. Or you don’t, as the case may be! I’m used to following things through and obsessing about them. You know, you’ve worked editorial too. And you’re more obsessive then me, I’m told [laughs].
Joe—I’m not going to rise to that, Grace.
Grace—I always eventually would leave Vogue because you have to have rollover. If you don’t leave room for young people to come into a magazine, then it doesn’t matter how good the ones at the top are; in the end it starts looking the same. I moved over from British Vogue for the same reason. If the fashion editors stay, then everybody else is kind of stuck on down the line.
Joe—So young talent doesn’t make you feel threatened in any way?
Grace—Absolutely not. I find young talent really inspiring. Any time there was a mention of somebody young or new coming to Vogue, I always thought that’s only a plus for me. It makes me look good and drives me on to show that I can be as good as a younger person. I can be as young as a young person.
Joe—We know what your old job was; your pictures spoke for you. How would you describe this new job or vision that you’ll have, or this new world that you’re going to be creating?
Grace—I’m feeling my way as I go. I don’t really want to design a line of clothes—these are things people are throwing at me. I’m a snob; I like to be associated with major designers like Nicolas [Ghesquière], or Marc [Jacobs], or Hedi [Slimane], or Phoebe [Philo], or Mrs. Prada; obviously they’re not going to ask me to design something for them. I’ve sat in a design room at Calvin Klein, and to a degree it was exciting. So, do I want to design for a big company? Not really.
Joe—So you’re not going to be working for the High Street?
Grace—Probably not. They haven’t asked me.
Joe—One of the first projects that you are going to launch is your collaboration with Comme des Garçons, your fragrance Grace by Grace Coddington. How did that come about?
Grace—Well that’s been in the works a very long time.
Joe—You were still full-time at Vogue.
“That’s what I dislike most about life today: everybody is a critic. Everybody can have an opinion, but to pass that opinion on and say that they are right is another thing.”
Grace—A couple of years ago, our friend Gabe [Doppelt, creative consultant and editor], came to me and said, “You and I should do some projects together, shall we think of something?” We landed on a perfume. It’s kind of an obvious thing. Before I went any further, I told Anna what I was thinking and asked if it was a conflict. She’s smart and knows it would be a very long process. In the beginning it wouldn’t be any conflict and I’d still be giving 100 percent to Vogue. In theory, it is a conflict if you produce something and you work for a magazine.
Joe—Anna was OK with you doing the fragrance?
Grace—Yes, she was; she’s always very supportive. At the same time I had been talking to her about a movie. But again, movies take even longer—I’ll probably be dead by the time the movie comes out.
Joe—This is a movie you’re hoping to make based on your memoir?
Grace—Yes. I’ve sold the rights to a film company called A24, who are a young company based in New York which I love. It’s not a Hollywood thing.
Joe—Let’s come back to that.
Grace—Yes! Sorry! That’s what I do: digress. I had been talking for three or four years about the film and talking to producers. It was sold quite recently. So I was already one foot out of Vogue, so then I came to Anna with this perfume idea. I guess it’s all about “Let’s cash in because right now I have a name”. Particularly, coming out of the memoir, which came after the movie [The September Issue]. Each person from each beauty company we talked to, we learned something, but no one was making a commitment because that’s what happens with those big companies. They talk to you, they sound really excited, they’re really nice. They say it’s fabulous, but they just have to talk to their CEO and will get back to you. As soon as they say, “What a fabulous idea, we’ll get back to you,” you think, “Let’s just try somebody else.” [Laughs].
We started getting a bit fed up, so I had the idea to give my friend Adrian Joffe from Comme des Garçons a call. He had just done a perfume with [the milliner] Stephen Jones and maybe he’d be interested. He said, “Funnily enough, I’m in New York now. Come over at 3 pm tomorrow afternoon.” So we went to his office in Dover Street Market and waited for the “I’ll get back to you, I have to speak to Mrs. Comme des Garçons in Tokyo.” We kept saying, “Don’t you have to speak to Rei?” and he said, “No, no I don’t have to speak to anyone.” The whole process is a one-man show.
Joe—So he wanted to do it?
Grace—Yes. He said, “Well, first of all think about what sort of thing you want; we need to design the bottle and we need you to meet the nose—we’ll get all these people together.” Little by little it started coming together. It’s been incredible. We realized you need more than just me drawing a bottle to create a bottle. There are all sorts of technical things you need to know. So I called my friend [the creative director] Fabien Baron to see if he could help us out. I told him the problem was we didn’t have any money and he said, “No problem! I’d love to.” We got him on board. And when I was in Paris, we made an appointment with our nose, Christian Astuguevieille.
Joe—How was that experience? How difficult were you with the nose process?
Grace—Well of course Christian spoke French, so it was all done through Adrian, who was our translator. That was quite funny. I was praying that Adrian wasn’t interweaving some other ingredients, because Comme des Garçons has those funny perfumes that have quite odd, off things in it.
Grace—Atomic something or other. I kept saying roses! Maybe the odd peony, but roses! Christian gave us some things to smell to see my reaction. He made all these mixtures up and we sat around the table and sniffed it and then some liked it, some didn’t. You put the fragrances on little tabs of paper to smell, but I like smelling perfume on skin. Perfumes on my skin tend to smell very strong. Everybody is different. A perfume on you will smell different to a perfume on me. It’s a little confusing.
Joe—What perfume do you usually wear?
Grace—I’ve always been attracted to roses. I used to buy Red Rose from Floris. It’s a light toilet water, slightly masculine. I cannot stand heady, strong perfumes. I like a very light aroma. That was my brief: I want something very clean that doesn’t overwhelm you.
Joe—You don’t want people to smell you before you walk into the room?
Joe—It was an enjoyable process?
Grace—In the end you have to do what you love, which is my mantra. I cook what I love to eat. I’m only interested in a smell that I would wear myself. Even clothes. I can fantasize about clothes and think, “If I was a 15-year-old nymph maybe I would wear this.” I have to be able to think it through and rationalize whatever I do. The perfume had to be practical too—something I felt comfortable with. Meanwhile there was the bottle process. The bottom is a stock bottle because if you make it custom it is incredibly expensive. And I want a lot of people to have it; I want the kind of people that come up to me in the street and say that they love what I do, to be able to buy my perfume without going bankrupt. I wanted something simple and classic, like Chanel No. 5 or those kinds of bottles. I like something that looks pretty on your washstand. Fabien came up with this one that is so simple and so plain, but it just had a nice feel about it. It is very rounded; there are no sharp corners. It feels like a lovely stone that you’ve picked up by the beach that’s been washed by the sea. So we got the bottom half, and we kept playing with what materials to make the cap out of. I just felt I needed something special. I put all the money we didn’t have into the cap.
Joe—So what’s the cap like?
Grace—Due to the fact that I’m rather partial to cats, when I was doodling it became a cat, of course. The drawing just got simpler and simpler until it’s basically just a round ball with two little spiky ears.
Joe—A little cat’s head.
Grace—This sounds pretentious: But it’s like if Jeff Koons would do it, like his Balloon Dog, but not. It’s that kind of simplicity. I didn’t want it to be cute. I mean, look around my house and it’s full of knick-knacks. I didn’t want it to look like that. I wanted it to have a clean modern feeling about it, but still be a cat because I’m so obsessed with them. It was cute but not so cute that a grownup couldn’t have it on her table. I got carried away and thought it was so clever and gave it a tail. Fabien actually went white when he saw the tail! I think he was trying to persuade me not to get too silly. We all looked at each other and thought, OK let’s keep it simple. So we did. It’s like everything; it’s an editing process really. You push it further, then you pull back, then push it and pull it—like all the things I’m connected with. Even when I did my memoir, they would have liked it to go straight to paperback with a big color picture of me on the cover and not too many pictures in it. Even with the memoir I wanted something pleasing in the hand and more than just a book to read. I think I achieved that even with a memoir, which is quite a commercial thing.
Joe—And you’ve achieved it with the perfume. Are you happy with it?
Grace—I’m really happy with it, yes. I’m on tenterhooks because I’m waiting to see the first real one.
Joe—You mentioned the people who you want to buy this perfume; it’s the people who come up to you in the street who’ve seen you in The September Issue and say, “I love what you do.” So would you do another film?
Grace—Would I do another film? Well I’m hoping eventually if it happens before I die…
Joe—Not a film based on your memoir, but another documentary. I know you were very reluctant to be in The September
Issue. It achieved a certain amount of success. And leading to your memoir and now your fragrance, is it something you would do again?
Grace—I don’t think so. People would be bored to death of me. I’m kind of the same person as I was in The September Issue: rather annoying and—as we both say—obsessive.
“In a way I’m starting a new life venturing out into all the things I’ve never done before.”
Joe—And those are your good points! [Laughs].
Grace—Yeah, exactly! I think it would be difficult for it to have another mode about it if you set it in today. Unless I suddenly became a pop star. I’ve always wanted to be one.
Joe—Since when? Since the 60s?
Grace—Since seeing the pop video you did in the 80s [laughs]. I only want that because I can’t have it, because I can’t sing. But then a lot of pop stars can’t sing either, so I guess I could. I always say I’d like to be one—or even an opera singer.
Joe—If you get a call to be a pop singer, you’d sign up for it?
Grace—No, I’d be scared to death! I can’t even talk in public, let alone sing in public. It’s a fantasy to sing beautifully. It would be nice to create, however it may be, whether to play the piano or the guitar, or sing.
Joe—Let’s talk about clothes. You’ve lived through an amazing period of fashion from the 60s to the early 2000s. What do you see today that’s new or exciting in fashion?
Grace—I think it’s hard to say, “Oh this is new, or that’s new.” It’s much easier to reflect back and say, “That was new at the time.” Sometimes you need to look at something more than once before you realize it’s interesting and relevant. Now is a very difficult time for fashion. It’s a difficult time for many things, but fashion particularly. It breaks my heart to see one person after the other leave their jobs for whatever reason. It breaks my heart even more when I see those people unemployed and not producing what they should be, what I know they can do. There are a lot of great designers—maybe not young—they’re hanging around without a job. It’s terrible!
Joe—Who are you missing right now from fashion?
Grace—I miss Raf Simons. He has a point of view that’s interesting, I hope he pops up. I miss Olivier Theyskens, terribly. I miss Marco Zanini.
Joe—I miss Jil Sander and Helmut Lang.
Grace—It’s strange—people disappear and then come back. The fashion business is funny; it’s very cruel. I’m not sure if you disappear and come back you can be relevant again or make your mark. Let’s say if Helmut got a job as a designer again—I honestly don’t think he wants it—he’d have to be so different from what he was doing then. What he was doing then, I was crazy for it. I wore nothing but Helmut Lang. But he couldn’t just come back from there and build from that. I don’t know how he’d account for those years.
Joe—But that’s what fashion is: you work and live and create in your time, in your moment. So to stop and come back is not easy.
Grace—It’s almost impossible. That’s why it’s terrible when they leave or stop for a minute. Unless they get a job immediately, they can get going and develop in another direction like Nicolas [Ghesquière] did. He stopped for a year, but I do think he absolutely caught up and built on it. It still has his feeling in it, but it is another direction and a very interesting direction. He is kind of special. He’s also a lot younger than some of them who have lost their jobs, like John Galliano. You love his fantasy, you do. But it’s difficult to enter the fashion world now. We’re very unforgiving, we’re very critical of everything everybody does—even a good collection.
Joe—Why is that?
Grace—God knows! I don’t know why. I’ve sat in a design room and you sit there for…well not six months any more.
Grace—Barely. But it’s kind of intense, all the things you go through to create a collection. And then to have one bad word in the press dismiss it and everybody jumps on a bandwagon—it’s terrible.
Joe—It’s fashionable to be dismissive in fashion.
Grace—It’s very fashionable. It’s OK for those journalists, because they earn their living and their name for being dismissive. It’s such a negative way of earning a living. Attacking people. It’s the same in the movies—movie critics are famous for knocking a movie that took probably 10 years in the making and they say, “Oh, it’s no good.”
Joe—In one line.
Grace—Yes, you know, how long does it take you? Two hours to see the movie, five minutes to write that line, and you’ve killed someone. Not someone, probably two or three hundred people who were involved. That’s what I dislike most about life today: everybody is a critic. It’s what happened when the bloggers arrived; they’re unqualified. Everybody can have an opinion, but to pass that opinion on and say that they are right is another thing.
Joe—Opinions needn’t be right nor wrong. But the power of a journalist is that something they write in a powerful publication may be assumed to be true. A lot of people base their judgment on that critic’s viewpoint.
Grace—I’m very aware of this more than anybody. If I’d come up through some other means, people wouldn’t respect me as much as I think they do now. Part of it is my name is connected with Vogue; that is a big part who I am and why people respect me.
Joe—A good set of pictures is a good set of pictures no matter where they’re published. They’ll stand out.
Grace—Yes and if you work at some place like Vogue, you are privileged because you have access to all the best people and probably a little bit more money than other people. Money doesn’t always make for better pictures, having said that. I remember when we were working at British Vogue, we had a budget of nothing, literally nothing. Everybody worked for free, and I think we did some pretty great shoots.
Joe—Are you interested instead of your work being viewed on paper, in the format that you and I love—flicking back and forth in the magazines…?
Grace—No, Joe, not on a website!
Joe—Or on a telephone…
Grace—No, no! It’s about quality. How can you see quality on a telephone? Don’t get me wrong; telephones are amazing and the quality they get. It’s incredible to think that your little phone does so many things: it can tell you what the weather is, what the stocks and shares are—just about everything in the whole world. It’s all packed into that little thing, and it also takes a picture. Like everybody else, I stopped taking pictures with a camera because you don’t need a camera—you’ve got your phone with you everywhere. You can catch that moment very easily with a click. You can record everything, although I’m not sure I would print it and hang it on the wall.
Joe—You’re also not sitting at shows with your telephone recording each look. You still sit and sketch?
Joe—I think you’re the only person that does this.
Grace—Oh, I am. When the lights go down, you see the lights of the phones and people with their hands in the air. They can barely see what they’re photographing, willy-nilly snapping everything. I also draw everything, but I do it because it makes me remember. That’s all. I think if I’m going to draw something, I look at something that much more closely.
Joe—You came into the fashion business at the beginning of ready-to-wear fashion in the 60s. It must have been an incredible moment when all of this was happening. What’s been the best period of fashion?
“But it’s kind of intense, all the things you go through to create a collection, and then to have one bad word in the press dismiss it and everybody jumps on a bandwagon—it’s terrible.”
Grace—You know, I’m always excited, even if it’s not good. There is a whole thing of the fashion business, shows—particularly couture—that I’ve always loved, principally because of what it stands for: things beautifully made. It can be really extraordinary. Maybe not every dress is fashion-forward and trend-wise on-key, but there were a lot of very, very beautiful clothes. Even in a bad year there are a lot of beautiful clothes. How many do you want?
Joe—Has there been a decade that you felt there was something new and fresh coming through?
Grace—I don’t know that I always measure things by new and fresh.
Joe—What do you measure them by?
Grace—Whether they excite me or not.
Joe—What excites you?
Grace—What comes to mind—and I sound like an old lady—the years of Saint Laurent shows and literally fainting because it was very emotional.
Joe—When did you last get emotional at a fashion show?
Grace—I remember being emotional at a Comme des Garçons show, ‘Broken Brides’ from Spring/Summer 2005. But even that was a while back. It was incredibly beautiful. Galliano makes me very emotional. Nicolas makes me emotional, but also there is something personal because I love him so much. I get really excited to see what he’s doing.
Joe—That connection is important to fashion.
Grace—You say that word: connection. Connection is really important. I don’t go to Milan anymore, I miss seeing Prada. I always think, “Miuccia is a fascinating designer.” I miss seeing in person what she does. It’s not just what’s happening on the runway, it’s the subliminal mood of people all around that I respond to—and everybody responds to. It affects how you see things.
Joe—Will you continue to see shows? You’re not obliged now.
Grace—Well, if they don’t take them all off and make them into goddamn videos or something really boring! You don’t personally like going to shows, that’s the way you work. But I like the emotion of going to shows.
Joe—I like watching a show. I don’t like the before and after of a show.
Grace—I don’t like going in when everyone is hustling and bustling and complaining about their seat, no. Or being photographed. I’ve learned that you better keep smiling and not be grumpy, because next thing you know you’ll see that picture of you being rude to a photographer in something. You have to put on a brave face. The beginning of every show season, I walk in and have to take a big deep breath. There is so much enjoyment along the way that it’s OK—I can deal with it. Just don’t take it seriously, that’s all. The pleasure of going to a good show can make up for all the not-quite-so-good ones. It’s a very positive process for me.
Joe—How would you describe your relationship with fashion photographers over the years? There are not many you haven’t worked with and you’re very interested in each new generation. When you went to British Vogue in the late 60s, you worked with a lot of new photographers. What is it in their pictures that first attracts you and make you want to work with them?
Grace—It’s the photographer and the picture. Although you say that and then there can be photographers who are mean, a bit rude or difficult, and stress you. This is not good, but if at the end they come up with a great photograph, then it’s worth it.
Joe—What is more important to you: the fashion in the picture or great fashion photography?
Grace—The thing about fashion photography is you cannot separate the clothes from a photograph—it has to work on both levels, as a photograph and as fashion. If it just works as a photograph, that is not a fashion picture. If you’re shooting in black and white, a headshot, fuzzy—that is not a fashion picture. Fashion photographs have—by definition—got to show fashion, which sometimes is difficult because it’s ugly. But you’ve got to integrate fashion. Usually what helps is the shoes. It might even be barefoot, but then it’s important to see the bare foot to understand the clothes. I have this thing about shoes. For me, they dictate so much. They can actually kill or make the picture. You can have some very boring dresses, and if you put interesting shoes, it makes a great picture. When putting the shoot together, I don’t style things much: I don’t push the sleeves up or drag it off the shoulder or show the tits or unzip the thing; I don’t put on 15 watches. My prime thing is to integrate the fashion and the picture, particularly nowadays. Back then, there was the thing of putting something extraordinary that didn’t fit in into a picture. Nowadays, I want it to be believable.
Joe—You haven’t cursed once in this interview, Grace! [Laughs].
Grace—I’ve been really, really careful! You haven’t heard me hesitate a few times?
Joe—That’s what it was! [Laughs]. So, you’re going to continue at Vogue, there’s going to be this new direction as yet undefined but it’s starting with the fragrance. When you look back in 20 years, what do you want the message to be? What do you want people to remember about your work?
Grace—I want them to say she didn’t waste her time as soon as I was doing a bit less at Vogue. I want someone to say, “That’s incredible that life begins at 75!”
Following the interview, Grace has taken on new projects:
She will be guest creative director for a heritage American luxury brand and will return to modeling in an upcoming fall advertising campaign. And as of yet, she still has no record deal! Grace by Grace Coddington is available at Comme des Garçons boutiques and Dover Street Market internationally, Colette in Paris, Doverstreetmarket.com, and Gracecoddington.com.